The MBTA has a new general manager, Luis Ramirez, and with his arrival comes a honeymoon period for promises about improving service on the rails and buses, holding down costs and looking forward.
And after that, what?
A report this week by the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation takes the long view of public transportation in the state and recommends a comprehensive, independent review. We usually cringe at the idea of another government study to identify problems and recommend solutions, since too often those recommended solutions end up on a bookshelf gathering dust.
But the transit system faces major hurdles that need to be identified and discussed at all levels, with solutions – and how to pay for them – agreed upon and put on a realistic timetable.
It’s worth remembering that only recently did Keolis, the company that runs the commuter rail, pledge to start checking to be sure all passengers had actually bought tickets. So there is a long, long way to go.
The taxpayers foundation produced a similar report in June 2016, and this one sounds many of the same themes, in light of important developments.
It also references the work of a special commission that investigated the MBTA a decade ago and warns that problems now are “broader and more intractable” — and won’t be resolved just by spending more money on the MBTA.
For example, the growth of ride-hailing services such as Uber and Left have carved into state tax revenue. So has the increased use of lower-cost electric vehicles. Proposed changes in state tax laws that are on the 2018 ballot could also hit state financial plans hard.
The foundation is pressing for a complete, detailed picture of the transportation system. Gov. Charlie Baker and the Legislature, it says, would be hobbled by “an incomplete inventory of assets and their conditions, inconsistent project management and/or inefficient spending, and a lack of metrics to monitor progress.”
Similarly, last year, the foundation cited the “inferior” data used by the MBTA to keep track of all its assets, poor management of projects and large purchases, and a “lack of accountability regarding how the money is spent.”
Then there’s a changing climate. The foundation doesn’t focus on that in its latest update but does note the Northeast is expected to experience the impact of climate change sooner than other regions.
The next 80 years are expected to bring a 7-foot sea level rise that would flood 30 percent of Boston twice daily at high tide. The taxpayers foundation notes that will have major impacts on roads, subway tunnels and culverts — not to mention miles of subway and commuter rail tracks in low-lying areas that would expand and buckle in the increasing heat, and become unstable from the rising groundwater table.
“Investments in storm water retention and repair of flood-damaged roads, culverts and other transportation infrastructure will be required to prevent harm to people and property,” its report says.
Many coastal communities, including Newburyport, are addressing the challenges that rising sea levels will bring, setting up resiliency committees, for example. Transportation and highway officials should be planning for those challenges as well.
The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation is urging a complete study of the transportation system so that planners and lawmakers have a clearer picture of what we have, what shape it’s in now, and what needs to be done to build for the future.
“Creating a reliable infrastructure that matches those of other states and nations will provide the safety and dependability that our taxpaying commuters and employers need and deserve,” foundation president Eileen McAnneny said last year. “The state’s economy and vibrancy depend on it.”
That’s as true now as it was a year ago. Lawmakers should take up the foundation’s recommendation and vote for an independent review of the transportation system. Only then will we have both a clear picture of our transportation system, its needs and costs.